Under Contract (2015 Week 1 Age): Patrick Chung (28), Duron Harmon (24), Tavon Wilson (25), Nate Ebner (26)
Unrestricted Free Agent: Devin McCourty (28)
Devin McCourty elevated himself to the discussion of top free safety in the league, alongside Earl Thomas, Eric Weddle, and Harrison Smith. He allowed the Patriots to play their single-high safety coverage looks, deterred many deep throw attempts, was stout in run defense, added wrinkles to the defensive depth when brought up in nickel coverage, and continued to be a leader of the team on and off of the field. Without McCourty, the Patriots defense wouldn't have been able to operate as it did. He was integral.
If McCourty was the glue for the team, Pat Chung was the unexpected spark. Chung came back after a failed stint in Philadelphia and there weren't many hopes from the start; he was expected to compete for special teams depth and maybe see a snap or two on defense. Instead, Chung was a starter and one of the best strong safeties in the league. Yes, he still struggled when asked to cover the deep throws, but he was fantastic against the run and was in position to make plays on most tight ends he covered.
Chung earned his extension and he was the perfect complement to McCourty in the secondary.
Duron Harmon is a perfect cover-two safety and he rotated with Chung on obvious passing downs in order to add ball skills on the back-half of the defense. He came through with a huge forced turnover at the end of the game against the Ravens in the playoffs and flashed the range required of a Patriots safety. On plays where McCourty was closer to the line, Harmon was expected to play the single-deep safety role, which he did admirably.
Tavon Wilson actually came on strong down the final stretch of the season, and contributed to special teams all year. While he won't be able to justify his second round price tag, he seemed to make a play every time he was on the field; it's really just a numbers game at the position.
While McCourty is entrenched as a perfect and every-down free safety, the trio of Chung, Harmon, and Wilson all present different skills. Chung is the best against the run, but the weakest against the pass. Harmon is the best against the pass, but the weakest against the run. Wilson provides a little mix of both, which is why he primarily took the field in the dime package.
Having such an array of versatile safeties is important for a game of match-ups and allowed Bill Belichick to scheme the best players for each football situation. While it would be nice to have two full time safeties, the rotation served its purpose and exceeded all expectations.
Nate Ebner spent most of his time on special teams, where he ranked second on the team in tackles. He's a perfect fit alongside Matthew Slater on special teams.
2015 Projection: If restructuring Darrelle Revis is priority #1a for the Patriots this off-season, signing McCourty to a long term extension is priority #1b. Four of the top five highest paid safeties in the league are free safeties, and McCourty deserves to be paid with them (Eric Berry is the 3rd highest paid, while playing strong safety). The average of the top 5 safeties is roughly $8.7 million per season. The top five free safeties average $8.5 million. Look for McCourty to receive a contract worth roughly $8 million per season, with a fair amount guaranteed upfront as a sweetener.
With all of the other players locked up and still young, this position group looks set up to succeed for the foreseeable future, so long as McCourty returns. This unit would not be the same without McCourty, but a pairing of Harmon and Chung wouldn't be the end of the world- it would just be noticeably weaker on the backend.
McCourty has expressed his desire to stay in New England, so hopefully everything works out on that front. It's easy to forget that this was just his second season at safety and that he's still growing as a player. For as good as this positional group was in 2014, they stand to be even better in 2015 with another year as a unit and a full season together under their belts.